On a brilliant afternoon last March, Robin Pflugrad walked the sidelines at Washington-Grizzly Stadium with a big smile on his face.

A year earlier he was fired by University of Montana President Royce Engstrom as head coach of the Griz football team after a series of off-the-field incidents involving his players. That was three months after he led UM into the semifinal round of the FCS playoffs where it lost a close call at Sam Houston State.

Pflugrad landed on his feet this past February when he was hired as offensive coordinator at Weber State. Why, then, was he hanging around Hoyt Field in March?

He simply wanted to encourage his ex-players as they tested their skills in Montana’s annual pro day – players who helped forge memories that Pflugrad will never forget.

The coach will be back at Washington-Grizzly Stadium wearing purple on Saturday when his Weber State team takes on seventh-ranked Montana at 12:07 p.m. His Wildcats (1-9) have a steep climb against the Griz (8-2), but the mild-mannered Pflugrad wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“The last 2 1/2 weeks I’ve gotten so much support about coming back,” said the coach, whose team arrived in Missoula late Thursday via bus. “After that entire situation happened, if I can sit back and say, ‘Well, a lot of this was positive’ ... I mean people really respected what we did in a short amount of time.

“Whether it’s a friend, Quarterback Club member, a faculty member at the University of Montana, a business owner downtown, someone all the way across the state, they’ve all said, ‘Coach, don’t ever forget, this is your football team.’ When I hear that over and over, sure it brings back some tremendous memories.”

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112810 pflugrad kw.jpg
Montana football coach Robin Pflugrad guided the Griz to a 7-4 record in his first season at the helm, a mark that left the Griz out of the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1992. In his second season, he was named the Big Sky Conference's coach of the year. Kurt Wilson

Pflugrad still has strong feelings about what transpired 21 months ago. He and Montana athletic director Jim O’Day were informed by Engstrom their contracts would not be renewed. It was a dark time for Griz athletics and the image of the university suffered.

“There were some political things we couldn’t control,” Pflugrad said. “There were a lot of things on Royce’s desk and he had to do something.

“Did he do the right thing? Obviously I don’t think so. As much correspondence as I have with that football team, I know to this day they don’t think so. They think he made a big mistake. You know that’s what keeps me going, is knowing that team knows the president made a mistake. That’s what keeps me fired up every day.”

Pflugrad is proud of what he and his staff accomplished in his two years at the helm. Many of the current Griz were recruited by the coach and his staff, including quarterback Jordan Johnson and wide receiver Ellis Henderson.

Pflugrad still remembers sitting in the Johnson family’s living room on a recruiting trip in Eugene, Ore.

“I saw him do things that I thought Dave Dickenson did,” the coach said, referring to Montana’s most beloved QB, who played in the 1990s. “I thought this guy can win a national championship. I’m proud of what he has done and overcome. I’m proud to be associated with him.

“And obviously I’ve always supported him,” he added, referring to a 2012 comment he made after Johnson was accused of a crime for which he was found not guilty. “ ... Part of coaching is to develop our players on and off the field, not just to dismiss them. We can’t just recruit a guy and then if a couple things come up, well are we just going to get rid of every player if there’s a blemish along the way? I think that’s a coach’s job to develop, not dismiss.”

* * * * *

Pflugrad’s plan was to coach in Missoula until he retired.

He believed in his heart Montana was his “niche.” His two children were born in the Treasure State. His wife, Marlene, loved Missoula and was active as a volunteer.

He envisioned his Grizzlies winning a national championship. If not in 2012, then surely in 2013.

“When that’s pulled from you in a very abrupt fashion, you have to move on,” the coach said. “So all of a sudden I’m staring in the mirror saying, ‘Hey big boy, it’s time to move on. Life isn’t fair.’

“That’s what you tell your players every day. Somehow you have to find a way and through adversity you improve.”

Pflugrad, who gives a great deal of credit to the current Montana staff for reviving the program, says he’s eternally grateful to O’Day and former UM President George Dennison for giving him a chance to lead the Griz. Likewise, he’s grateful to Weber State coach Jody Sears and athletic director Jerry Bovee for giving him an opportunity to call plays for the Wildcats.

“I’d like to say I just call the ones that work,” he joked.

* * * * *

The 2011 Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year would love to have a head position again someday. For now, he and the rest of the Weber coaching staff are fighting to save their jobs. Sears is 3-18 in two seasons at the helm and what he and his staff need more than anything is time to rebuild their program through tireless recruiting.

“College should be about second chances and I’m very disappointed I didn’t get a second chance,” he said of his UM experience. “Sometimes I wonder what was even the first chance? OK, I was penalized for what?

“But what I and Marlene have experienced is just a tremendous amount of support from the people of Montana since leaving there. It was amazing. I mean simply amazing the response.”

Asked what he expects Saturday, Sears voiced his respect for his offensive coordinator.

“I know there’s going to be a lot of emotion for all of us going back up there with Coach Pflugrad,” he offered. “He means a lot to us.

“I know how things went down up there. It was an emotional time. But at the same time, too, we’re leaders, and we’ve got to go up into a hostile environment and play good sound football.”

Reporter ​Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@lee.net.

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(26) comments

glacierdude
glacierdude

Let me be the first to ask why there is not an exploratory meeting held for all the of the public to attend to discuss how to go about getting rid of the fuhrer, Engstrom and beginning the cure and possibly even get Robin back. I for one am more than willing to dedicate a large portion of my free time to walking a picket line and I know many more that are equally as incensed and anxious to move forward for the sole purpose of righting this egregious wrong. Is there anybody else out there with the stones, who is as disgusted as I am and not afraid to be challenged. Anybody?

Bittersweet
Bittersweet

"....why there is not an exploratory meeting..."

Because that would be bad for Royce. An other questions?

5GenerationMTN
5GenerationMTN

Marlene was my cheerleading coach during Robin's first time with the Grizzlies. I admire and respect both she and Robin. They are people of integrity and a great fit for Montana. This article is a testament to Robin's excellent character. I don't know if many would possess Robin's graciousness and attitude about Montana after what the University administration put him through. I am sick to think of what their family experienced due to a knee-jerk response to an issue that required thoughtful consideration. Wouldn't it be great if Robin had the chance to lead the Grizzlies again and the University got the chance to right their wrong? I believe Missoula would embrace him.

Dubs
Dubs

We wish you the best, Robin! You were scapegoated out of a job and the weakest link is still here.

You Serious Clark
You Serious Clark

I wish a huge "Pflu - Grad" "Pflu-Grad" cheer could echo through the first part of the game... Kind of a giant middle finger to the worst President/Provost in the nation.

You folks slay me here --- You have a guilty even after proven not guilty attitude. Football haters, for the sake of hating anything macho in the world. Not guilty means - Not Guilty. Pflugrad was right. The Pin-head president of UM is wrong. And this is the reason numbers are down - we have a leader that is clueless. Hard to have many things go well when leadership sucks. (**cough** obamacare***cough**)

Still Here
Still Here

PK, Your broad brush accusation toward a hundred plus group of young men is stupid. If you want to make assumption, look at the inept handling of student situations by Main Hall. Pflugrad and O'Day were scapegoats that were fired to cover up for Engstrom and others mistakes and poor decisions. If I was coming to a University, I would hope that I had an advisor / coach that would stand by me.

Thinkin Conservative
Thinkin Conservative

Has anyone stopped to think that enrollment is down because parents feel campus is an unsafe environment? Not everyone in Montana thinks JJ is innocent and the sooner he is gone from Montana, the better. President Engstrom did the right thing by getting rid of Robin & O'Day. The only thing that the athletic leadership cared about was winning and protecting their precious little football players. Everyone has to pay the piper sometime.

Bittersweet
Bittersweet

You are partly correct. Enrollment may be down because parents feel campus is unsafe. What you a certainly wrong about is your implication that since Jordan Johnson chooses to finish his education here parents are keeping their kids away from him or whatever far fetched tale it is you are trying to tell.

What you might consider is if parents feel this campus is unsafe it is because the venom the editors at this newspaper let Gwen Florio spew month after month after month. Her one sided, exaggerated and sensationalized writings were a disgrace and the furthest thing from unbiased reporting of the facts.

Interesting after the NCAA decided there was nothing to see here Gwen slipped out the back door to pursue being a crime/mystery author of novels. She had plenty of practice here making things up and getting people to believe them, she should do well.

Shame on you, shame on you Missoulian for not controlling what she wanted in print. You should have known better.

Roger
Roger

Jordan Johnson was found not guilty, so regardless of what some people might believe, he is innocent. I believe enrollment is down because of Engstrom's little hissy fit in which he fired a good coach and the athletic director - hurting the football team for no good reason. Of course there's a few people who don't think that women ever file false rape charges, but in fact it's fairly common. However, according to you, even a person has been found not guilty in court must still "pay the piper", as you put it.

glacierdude
glacierdude

How dare you put the word conservative in your name. You, just like that scoundrel Engstrom are the problem. I think it's time "the boys" gets together and erects a hangman's gallows on the campus just to keep you liberal bigshots in check, reminded of just exactly where you stand in the hearts and minds of so many good people in and around Missoula..

PK67
PK67

Robin was responsible for his team. He chose players, not decent human beings. The issue of rape is way more important than Griz football. Engstrom pulled the cover off of our society's dirty little secret: if the rapist is a good athlete, he can get away with almost anything.

JMontana
JMontana

False. Recruiters exclusively choose good players and good people. They know if their players get in trouble, they will not be available to play, so that is a fact. The issue of rape is a huge deal, far bigger than any sports organization. That being said, who got raped?? Engstrom ripped the cover off a program to be investigated, and it was, and they didn't find anything! A player went to trial, and there wasn't any evidence! Beau Donaldson was a good student, and a good athlete, he went to prison without hesitation. Rapist go to prison, innocent people are exonnerated. Engstrom's desparate attempt to be proactive (against something that didn't even happen) and cover himself before getting any of the facts is ignorant, and has caused deep damages to UM and the program. But football and UM is MUCH bigger than Engstrom, and they are showing that now. Football players who get in trouble pay the same (or heavier) dues as anybody in the general public, and Engstrom will eventually pay his...

Objective observer
Objective observer

"Recruiters exclusively choose good players and good people."

Really??? The head football coach has no say in who is recruited and who is offered football scholarships? What planet are you from? I'm NOT saying that Pflugrad should be fired, just that he should be defended with the truth, not nonsense.

JMontana
JMontana

I'm not sure where I said the head coach has no say in who is offered a scholarship?? So my question to you is, what planet are you from where you think that "recruiters" aren't the coaches / head coaches?? For those of you that have no idea how kids are recruited, I'll go slower... Recruiters (AKA coaches, head coaches) recruit good players and good people.. as far as they know... which is typically a dinner or two with the kid's family, a few conversations with the head coach and a look at their GPA. There is no way you can take on 100 kids with that much information, and know which ones may make mistakes in college. The kids on this team right now, are for the most part good students, good people, and obviously good athletes. There are probably 1-3 bad kids on that team right now, if you grab 100 kids off campus, you would be lucky to only have 1-3 bad kids... it's just standard odds.

Love's Life
Love's Life

You are wrong. Robin Pflugrad recruited an upstanding young man in Jordan Johnson (among many others) I am sorry if you cannot accept that an innocent young man was railroaded by a disturbed young women that was being railroaded by a bunch of witch hunters. Move on.

Thinkin Conservative
Thinkin Conservative

You are pathetic. The only individual in this mix that is disturbed is you and Jordan Johnson.

grizcountry
grizcountry

WRONG!!

walter12
walter12

Pflugrad was the proverbial Scapegoat of the jewish Bible.

raptor53
raptor53

and Engstrom is like Caiaphas. Clearly about as popular.

Roger
Roger

Robin Pflugrad was summarily fired by Engstrom for having the temerity to use his right to free speech by standing up for his quarterback who was accused of rape, but exonerated in court. Engstrom's impulsive act has hurt the university, and, needless to say, Robin Pflugrad. Therefore Engstrom should be fired - it's a travesty that he's still around.

Pistol
Pistol

As anyone noticed Miami penalties where similar to the Griz? Why would a school who had alledged millions exchange hands receive the same? Answer! Engstrom proposed the UM sanctions ! Some stupid decision. We lose scholarships for three years, fine, and probation. Someone tell me what coach would want to work for this administration? We have been blessed with great candidates. Coaches on their way up. I bet the next coach is someone on their way down or with little experience. UM needs new leadership in main hall in order to move the program forward.

Leadfoot
Leadfoot

This is an emotional game for the NorthEndZoners of 20+ yrs. Robin is one of the finest men that I have ever known & is only out done by Marlene (Many forget that she was our Griz Cheerleader advisor). They have not one friend who doesn't agree with me. They raised their children in their own mold and have carried on the family tradition of modesty & success. Engstrom didn't make an inadvertent mistake. He made a calculated gamble that releasing Robin & O'Day would get the heat off of himself. It didn't & it hasn't. Engstrom is not what UM is about, what Griz football is about, & he has none of the character of any of the many individuals whom he has wronged. Since he hasn't the grace to leave on his own ( I doubt that there is a learning institution at any level that would want him) it is time for the powers-that-be to release him & start to repair the damaged reputation of UM that he has caused. A 7AM notice DOES feel like justice.

wedge it
wedge it

Royce has done enough damage to this university and community. He's got to go (and if Pflu were to come back as coach, all the better).

montanamuralist
montanamuralist

To call his firing a mistake is being very generous. How about a stupid kiss the NCAA backside move and in the end, the NCAA really could not find much. Like being audited by the IRS, they had to leave with something for their time spent behind trees on the practice field trying to hand out free meals. I stole that from a Missoulian column last year..I am no Rand Paul..I give credit where it is due. Anyway, wish Phlu could come back I know he wanted to stay here and it is tough to find a quality coach who will stay in our program for a long period. Engstrom is the one who needs to be fired..at a 7AM meeting with no warning. That would be justice served.

Bittersweet
Bittersweet

Any response Engstrom? Oh wait, your so called "reasons" will never be disclosed. Say again what the NCAA found? You stand for everything Montana isn't.

griznationbaby
griznationbaby

Engstrom.. You made a big mistake firing an innocent man in Pflugrad. Let's see, enrollment at the University of Montana is down, our TV recruiting advertisements are outdated and plain out stink, and there continues to be a problem with sexual assaults going on around the campus. Someone must be held accountable for all this.. And quite frankly Mr. President I think that would be you. The community should hand you YOUR deserved pink slip and boot your behind out of Montana.

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